Sorensen replays ’62 missile standoff

Theodore Sorensen, one of President John F. Kennedy’s closest advisers, gave a campus audience an inside look at crisis management in a talk in Jon M. Huntsman Hall Nov. 13.

The talk, “Presidents and Their Advisors During Crisis,” focused on one president—Kennedy—and his gravest crisis, the placement of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba in 1962.

Sorensen gave a play-by-play account of the crisis, emphasizing the degree to which Kennedy relied not on his Cabinet or National Security Council but on a small group of trusted advisors drawn from both to collectively make decisions.

Hawks in Kennedy’s inner circle argued for a military strike to eliminate the threat, but most of his advisors urged a more limited response at first—a quarantine of military cargo shipments to Cuba.

After the blockade was announced, the White House received two letters from the Soviets, one conciliatory, one threatening. By responding to the first and ignoring the second, Sorensen stated, Kennedy and his inner circle successfully racheted down the confrontation.

Sorensen also contrasted Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban missile crisis and President George W. Bush’s handling of Iraq. He noted that Kennedy made sure he obtained the blessing of allies and neighboring countries before imposing the quarantine and expressed puzzlement over Bush’s lack of interest in bringing allies in as partners in the rebuilding of Iraq.

When an audience question expressed similar puzzlement, Sorensen offered a possible reason why. Referring to a speech in which Kennedy stated, “America has seen enough of war,” he said, “Kennedy was really talking about himself. He had served in World War II and lost comrades in the war. Bush never served in a war. That may make the difference.”

The lecture was sponsored by the Institute for Strategic Threat Analysis and Research.

Originally published on December 11, 2003